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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2015 October Issue Newsletter

By Jack Kittredge

Organic layers graze fresh pasture grasses, explore soil for beetles and other delectable morsels, and live safe from predators.

A number of NOFA/Mass members have called or emailed to say that proponents of the 2016 Massachusetts ballot initiative on Humane Farm Animal Treatment are soliciting them to sign the ballot initiative petition. They are interested in our organization’s position on this effort, and I thought this would be a good occasion to go into a little detail on the initiative, the history and politics of such measures, and the alternative approaches that have been offered to achieve the same goals. Hopefully at the end of this article you will have a better sense of the issues involved and can make up your own mind on what you would like to support.

After a couple of years of frustration trying to pass a ban in Massachusetts on the use of small cages and crates to restrict farm animal movement, a group has filed a ballot initiative to be voted on in 2016. The group supporting the initiative, called Citizens for Farm Animal Protection, includes the Humane Society of the United States, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Animal Rescue League of Boston.

If passed, the initiative would have two parts.

1)     In Massachusetts, it would phase out “extreme confinement” of farm animals – specifically egg-laying hens, breeding pigs, and veal calves – in small crates and cages. Any farm owner or operator could be fined $1000 per violation for “knowingly causing any covered animals to be confined in a cruel manner.” Exceptions to this would be allowed during transportation, at fairs, during slaughter or medical research, for veterinary purposes, prior to a breeding sow’s giving birth or nursing, and during temporary periods no longer than six hours in any twenty-four hour period.

2)     It would also make it illegal for business owners in Massachusetts to sell any shell eggs, whole veal meat or whole pork meat that has been “confined in a cruel manner.”

The law, if passed, would take effect on January 1, 2022. It would be enforced by the Attorney General, who this September certified the initiative for the 2016 ballot. Supporters will have to collect approximately 90,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot, something which observers expect will be no problem.

Organic steers wonder if we are bearing dropped apples or are in any other way as interesting as the fresh grasses in their paddock.There is very little conflict in the state over part 1 of the initiative. Massachusetts Farm Bureau president Rich Bonnano estimates that of the 150,000 egg-laying chickens in the state, perhaps 2% or 3000 birds in only one farm operation would be in violation of the initiative. For pigs or veal animals, he says, the prohibited practices haven’t been used in Massachusetts for years.

The real bite of the initiative is in part 2, which would forbid the sale in Massachusetts of eggs, pork or veal raised anywhere in violation of these standards – and these farm practices are very common in other, more agricultural, states. For this reason the initiative will certainly be challenged in court on constitutional grounds (violation of the Interstate Commerce Clause) and lead to lengthy and fascinating new legal briefs. But such a ban, if passed, would also be a fundamental new legal device in social reform movements – a mandatory boycott.

The Farm Bureau opposes such an approach, suggesting that proponents have a hidden agenda.

“The people of Massachusetts have to understand that this is not about animal welfare,” says Bonnano. “It’s about the elimination of [people’s] right to eat meat…” More concisely, the National Pork Producer’s Council calls it an effort to advance a “national vegan agenda.” They do not advance concrete evidence, however, of such an agenda.

Bonnano and the Pork Council of course base their oppposition on the presumed right of people to cheap, or what they might call ‘affordable,’ food. Is this a right? If so, does it trump an animal’s right to humane treatment? Many organic farmers and consumers, I believe, feel that there is no right to cheap food. Food needs to be produced in a fashion that respects the earth’s creatures, ecosystems and health. And we need to pay the costs of raising food in that fashion.

Whether you agree with Bonanno that the initiative is a hidden vegan campaign or not, a different approach to advancing humane animal standards has been the adoption of “Animal Care and Standards Boards” by states. These, adopted by Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia, Rhode Island, and several other states in the last decade vary a good deal, but essentially create an official state body with seats representing farmers, animal rights groups, veterinarians, public health official, and other stakeholders and given the responsibility to examine current practices and technologies and set humane standards for farm animals. In Massachusetts this approach is represented by H.713, a bill introduced by Rep. Kulik and supported by NOFA/Mass, that would create a 13-member board (one seat would go to NOFA/Mass) with such powers.

Humane treatment advocates argue about which approach is sounder – legislative bans or standards boards.

In favor of bans is their finality if passed – a practice is no longer legal and you will be fined if you continue, period! Also, as in any campaign, there is a wonderful opportunity to educate and inform people about conditions they may know little of. A downside of bans is the opportunity they give to sensationalize the issue on either side. Farmers are cruel and oppressive monsters, or animal rights advocates are hardened ideologues with no willingness to compromise or delay their demands.

Of course standards boards are only as fair as the composition of the members and the rules they are created with. They too are subject to popular pressure and sensationalized news. But they have the ability to confer and cooperate to go beyond the result any one member would have reached alone. And they can do so without bitterness and anger, if well led.

At NOFA/Mass we believe that a standards board, properly constituted, can be very important in leading Massachusetts agriculture to new levels of humane animal treatment. Most farmers in this state are well beyond the treatment issues part 1 of the initiative is designed to cure. But there are other problems with confinement, with access to the out-of-doors, with medication, and with an animal’s inability to function in natural ways that have not been addressed, and which we would like to put on the agenda. They don’t lend themselves as yet to legislative campaigns, but are well adapted to serious research and discussion at something like a thoughtful standards board.

On the initiative, I say go as your heart wills. Support it if you feel it sends an important message to industrial agriculture that citizens have had enough of mistreatment and cheap food – for that is what the mistreatment is designed to achieve. Or if you feel it is inherently shallow and doesn’t deal with the issues you care about, tell organizers that you expect better of them.

In any case, whether the initiative passes or not, I believe something like the Care and Standards Board would be a good thing for us as farmers and as consumers. We need a forum to go beyond current methods and deal with the issues which new technologies, new markets, new farmers will force us to consider.

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